Do you have a New Year’s resolution related to money? Whether you are looking to buy a home, save for a vacation, or reduce your debt, all financial resolutions benefit from developing a budget.

Have I scared you off yet? The word “budget” can trigger alarm bells in our brains. It can be frustrating or frightening to look at our finances in detail, and budgets often conjure up feelings of scarcity and constriction.

But a good budget isn’t a straitjacket that will condemn your family to eating only Ramen noodles and hot dogs. A good budget is a living, flexible plan for your money that helps you spend in alignment with your values.

The first step I recommend is tracking your expenses. Don’t change the way you spend. Don’t make any drastic cuts or changes. Simply track the way you currently spend your money. There are mobile apps that can do this, but nothing beats an old-fashioned notebook and paper.

Track each and every expense (I know, it sounds like a lot of work. It is, and it’s worth it!). At the end of a month, total them into categories. Categories will probably include mortgage/rent, utilities, groceries, and eating out. You will probably have a lot of other categories, too. That’s fine. You should create categories that make sense to you and your life.

Once you know the total spent in each category, ask yourself: does this align with my values? In other words, do I value this product or service enough to spend this amount of money on it? You probably value a roof over your head, so your answer for that category is likely, “yes.” But what about eating out? Clothing? Streaming subscriptions? There is no wrong answer here. A large eating out category may reflect a weekly family outing, spending quality time together. That’s worth every penny! It’s up to you to decide which expenditures are meaningful and which aren’t.

You will also need to compare the total spent to your income for the month. If you spent more than you made, that is good information for you to have to make changes in the future.

After you’ve reflected on your spending and income, create the budget. Set a target maximum for each category. Don’t forget to include a debt repayment and/or savings category, even if the amounts are small. Long term, gradual changes are much more effective than drastic ones. If you spent $250 eating out last month and you decided that doesn’t reflect your values, try trimming it to $225, not $100. Next month, you can try trimming to $200.

Remember, a budget is just a plan for how you will spend to reflect your values. A good plan is always flexible, and you will have to make some changes as you go. Move money between categories as needed, as long as your spending stays within your income.

For more information on financial management, contact the Banks County Extension office at 706-677-6230 or susie.burton@uga.edu. You can also visit our website.

Susie Burton is the Banks County Extension 4-H/FACS Agent.

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